On Being Kind and Knowing Your Mind at the Help Desk

An Approach to Customer Service Admin That Worked

Posted Aug 25, 2019

Shutterstock / 1089900326
Source: Shutterstock / 1089900326

How do you handle difficult customer service interactions?

Picture it: You’re on the receiving end of some service snafu (or worse). Things have not gone as promised. They’ve taken a bad turn.

Now you have to decide what to do, how to handle the life admin of this unwanted situation.

I had one of those situations this week.

Image by Julia Kho / Shutterstock
Source: Image by Julia Kho / Shutterstock

I’ve been at a training retreat—or what one retreatant’s husband calls “hippie summer camp.” He’s not far off: There are cabins and a dining hall. There’s even a lake for swim time. (When it’s not infected by some algae that makes swimming prohibited.)

I was assigned a double-occupancy room. When I checked in on Sunday, I was told I’d have a roommate starting on Monday. Monday came and no roommate. Where is she?

At 7 pm I was told “Dolores” was registered for my room. By 9:30 pm, when the day’s program ended, still no Dolores. I went to the desk. I asked about Dolores. The person at the desk didn’t seem to know about Dolores but said I might still get a roommate; she couldn’t promise otherwise.

It’s now 10 pm.

You’re probably mellower than I am and wouldn’t mind. But I did not find it easy to go to sleep knowing someone I don’t know named Dolores may have a key and may come into my room while I’m sleeping.

The next morning, I was tired and cranky. And it dawned on me that this situation didn’t really feel ok.

(Now, I’ll note here that if you think roommate problems at a summer retreat center sound like first-world problems, if you feel like there are much bigger problems in the world, then I agree. And I hope you’ll read my recent Let’s Talk about Privilege.)

I headed toward the registration desk. But what to say? How to handle this? How would you handle it?

One research finding on point is not so surprising: You’ll get better results in customer-service interactions by adopting an affiliative style (engaging in a “warm, friendly manner”) than a dominant style (“trying to control or dominate”). Emotions are contagious, so showing up and yelling at people or threatening them is unlikely to get the result you want.

This is not exactly rocket science—more like what my old mentor used to call “grandmother research”: the kind of thing your grandmother could have told you, but someone still needs to go out and gather the data.

Not yelling at people is also a good idea for other reasons (including for its own sake!). This brings me to Sophia.

As I reflected on my retreat-housing dilemma, I remembered conducting an interview about life admin with a subsidized-housing advocate named Sophia.* I was impressed by her sway with an especially tough crowd: housing bureaucrats and landlords. She told me about marching straight up to the eighth floor of the housing office to report on a frontline clerk who had demeaned her client.

Her approach there was warm, consistent with the research supporting an affiliative approach. But our interview convinced me that the most powerful version of that approach is not being friendly in a shallow or superficial way. Rather, her manner combined a respect for all people with a dignity and a deep faith in her convictions that gave her interpersonal authority. You knew, just talking with her, she was a force to be reckoned with. I don’t expect to develop gravitas like that, but, since interviewing Sophia, I have gotten better at approaching admin interactions with two values in mind: on the one hand, a clarity and conviction about what I want; and, on the other, an appreciation for the other person’s humanity and decency, a basic sense that we are in this together.

This week, I tried to channel Sophia—and do it systematically. As I walked to the retreat registration office, I asked myself what I was hoping to get out of the interaction. What was my purpose?

I realized I wanted two things: 1) a promise of either no roommate or no roommate who arrives after 8 pm; and 2) an apology. I knew I might not get these things, but admitting that I wanted someone to acknowledge my discomfort changed my attitude. It softened me as I began speaking with the woman at the desk.

The approach worked. The person at the desk actually said the words, “Yes, that would stress me out, too. I’m sorry.” And it went smoothly from there.

Now I just have to decide whether writing the retreat center a note—appreciating the eventual outcome but suggesting that they create a policy about arrival time for roommates, to try to spare someone else a similar sleepless night—is Admin That’s Worth It to me. I did circle back to the desk to thank the woman who was so kind and helpful. But letter writing takes the admin to a whole other level. I’ll save that question for another day.

For now, here’s to a happy ending with better sleep. And to facing customer service admin with warmth and a clear sense of purpose.

(*The identities of the interviewees for my book, including Sophia's, were anonymized.)


Sijun Wang, Sharon E. Beatty, and Jeanny Liu, “Employees’ Decision Making in the Face of Customers’ Fuzzy Return Requests,” Journal of Marketing 76, no. 6 (November 2012): 80.

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